What the Heck Is EMDR Therapy? Can It Really Help Me?
Here are the answers to your EMDR questions. Hint: It's not only for trauma.
Posted July 19, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
"The speed at which change occurs during EMDR contradicts the traditional notion of time as essential for psychological healing."-Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Boston University School of Medicine
Providing EMDR therapy is my ultimate passion. The often quick relief EMDR can provide clients has become my life's purpose. People often ask me how I got into EMDR. I’ve had my share of very difficult experiences in life. I grew up with a speech impediment and was bullied constantly in school as a child. In high school, I was also chronically teased because of acne, frequently called pizza-face. In around 2013, I noticed that this bullying affected my self-esteem, my sleep, appetite, well-being, and got in the way of my relationships. I finally went to an EMDR therapist.
Long story short, my experience receiving EMDR completely changed my life. Those past experiences don't bother me at all anymore (I guess this is why I can write about them publicly). In fact, I know how much wiser and stronger I've grown from these past struggles. It was intensely cathartic, emotionally draining, challenging, yet relieving and empowering. After therapy, I knew I had to learn EMDR myself so I could help others effectively and efficiently.
The below represents the culmination of seven years of studying, writing about, and practicing EMDR. I am now fully certified in EMDR and train EMDR therapists as an EMDR Consultant. In the next years, my main purpose will be writing about, conducting, and teaching EMDR therapy.
What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR is not a traditional talk-therapy like most other psychotherapies; it's more of a mindfulness-based therapy, but that's not the full story. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. You may have heard of EMDR through other therapists, friends, doctors, or even seen it featured in movies or television shows. It is an empirically supported (well-researched), and structured model of psychotherapeutic treatment that involves working with memories, body sensations, core-self beliefs, and emotions to eliminate the residential emotional, somatic, and cognitive remnants of painful past experiences.
Whereas a dentist would fill a cavity, or a surgeon would heal your injured wrist, EMDR is a form of emotional surgery to heal emotional wounds to help you "get past your past." Stay tuned below for the "pro-tips for clients" section if you want EMDR therapy for yourself.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR therapy is based on the adaptive information processing (AIP) model, which points to the strength-based notion that our minds have a natural capacity to process what happens to us in a healthy and adaptive way. However, significantly stressful experiences can overwhelm the brain’s natural processing and healing capacity. When the information related to a particularly stressful occurrence is ineffectually processed, the initial perceptions can be stored essentially as they were originally encoded, along with any distorted thoughts, images, sensations, or perceptions experienced when it happened (Shapiro, 2007). Thus, in EMDR, the culprit fueling mental health issues is unprocessed, inadequately digested memories stored in the brain and body. EMDR works by stimulating the brain in ways that lead it to process unprocessed or unhealed memories, leading to a natural restoration and adaptive resolution, decreased emotional charge (desensitization, or the “D” of EMDR), and linkage to positive memory networks (reprocessing, or the “R” of EMDR). EMDR helps people address and work through those memories, sensations, and emotions and resume normal, adaptive, and healthy processing. An experience that may have triggered a negative response may no longer affect them the way it used to after EMDR treatment. Difficult experiences will likely become less upsetting.
EMDR appears to have similar effects of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in which the mind and body integrates information during sleep. Much like in REM, during EMDR your brain will go wherever it needs to go to heal. EMDR uses dual stimulation to help clients process difficult memories. Using the light bar, clients track the blue lights left and right with their eyes. Clients hold hand buzzers that send gentle oscillating vibrations to the hands.
What's the Story Behind EMDR Therapy and Its Creation?
EMDR began as a trauma treatment meant to reduce symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, intrusive memories, and related disturbances for returning soldiers from the Vietnam war and women who had been raped. It achieved timely results in its original clinical trials in the late 1980s that withstood six-month follow-ups (Shapiro, 1989). It was originally called eye movement desensitization (EMD) until 1990, when the “R,” which stands for reprocessing, was added to convert EMD into EMDR, the comprehensive psychotherapy treatment approach it has become.
Francine Shapiro, creator of EMDR, transformed EMD from its initial conceptualization as a basic trauma symptom desensitization to a more integrative information processing paradigm now known as EMDR. EMDR is now used regularly by myriad clinicians to evoke positive affect and profound shifts in core-beliefs and related behaviors, as opposed to merely symptom alleviation.
Now, after 32 years of research progress and clinical development, EMDR therapists treat a variety of mental health issues and adverse life experiences (Shapiro, 2012). Shapiro (2017) also asserted that EMDR can work on issues many clinicians have come to view as intractable, such as personality disorders, by reprocessing the memories underlying the present dysfunction.
What Can You Expect During an EMDR Session?
EMDR sessions may be longer than standard therapy sessions: 50-180 minutes. I often check in with my clients to identify a specific problem and related memories it's based on to focus on. The therapist will ask you to recall the details of a disturbing experience, such as sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Then, you'd be guided through several sets of dual stimulation through eye movements via light bar, alternating audio stimulation, or oscillating vibrations in your hands via hand buzzers.
I would ask you to focus on a certain aspect of the disturbing event and just let your mind float as it focuses on how the disturbance is stored in your body and mind. Dual stimulation would continue until the thoughts and beliefs about yourself become less disturbing and more positive, similar to how a physical cut heals with time. A client might start with, “I was helpless.” And end with, “I am a strong survivor.” During sessions of EMDR, clients may experience strong images, sensations, and emotions related to their disturbing memories, but most clients report a significant reduction in the intensity of the disturbance.
How Many EMDR Sessions Will it Take to Get Results?
Like most other psychotherapy approaches, EMDR should produce results in one or more sessions. The type of problem, severity and amount of trauma, and life circumstances are factors that may affect how many treatment sessions would be required. In my practice, clients may choose to use only EMDR as a primary source of treatment, or to integrate EMDR into their regular sessions of talk therapy.
Is EMDR Right for You?
I tend to tell my clients that all roads may lead to Rome, but many factors can affect which path is the right one for you. While EMDR has had such a positive impact on many of my clients, it may not be for everyone.
Often, your EMDR therapist might recommend meeting for one or more sessions to understand the source and nature of the issue before deciding to use EMDR as a treatment. During those sessions, they'll provide more information on EMDR, answer questions, and explain the process. Then, you and your therapist will decide mutually if EMDR is the right approach to address the specific problems that led you to treatment.
Yeah, But Does EMDR Actually Work?
According to over 20+ controlled studies exploring the effects of EMDR, yes EMDR does work. Studies show that EMDR therapy effectively eliminates or decreases symptoms of many mental health issues in the majority of those who received it. Clients reported improvement in related symptoms such as anxiety.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) have identified EMDR as a treatment that is effective for post-traumatic stress and other issues too. EMDR is also found effective by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, the Israeli National Council for Mental Health, the United Kingdom Department of Health, and many other governmental and health agencies over the world. Other research has also indicated that EMDR is a rapid and effective treatment. For more information on these studies, please visit the EMDR International Association’s website.
Aside from the research, here's Jameela Jamil's perspective from Russell Brand's podcast.
What Kind of Problems Can EMDR Treat?
EMDR is established as a well-researched and effective treatment approach for not only post-traumatic stress, but many mental health issues like anxiety, depression, poor job performance, sexual dysfunction, low self-esteem, among others. Therapists have also reported significant success in treating pain disorders, panic attacks, sexual and physical abuse, body dysmorphic issues, PTSD, trauma, performance anxiety, stress management, eating disorders, phobias, disturbing memories, dissociative disorders, personality disorders, addictions, and complicated grief.
Pro-tips for Prospective EMDR Clients:
It's a lot like putting a cast on a broken bone: parts of the process will feel very uncomfortable, unpleasant, and downright painful. I know it takes courage to trust the process. Prepare to feel emotionally drained after sessions. Don't schedule important tasks like job interviews after sessions. Prepare an after-therapy playlist and give yourself time to recharge and regroup. What helps you relax? Netflix? Exercise? Family time? Try to schedule those when possible after sessions.
Also, when you have a therapist in mind, consider requesting a free 10-15 minute phone consultation to ensure it feels like the right fit for you. EMDR works best when you feel safe, listened to, and supported by your EMDR therapist. Here's a 10-minute summary of more information and here's a free sample of a full EMDR session with Dr. Jaime Marich. I also recommend seeing an EMDRIA-certified therapist.
Why Is It Important to Go With a Certified EMDR Therapist?
A certified therapist has met a high standard of quality of training and experience in EMDR. The certification process requires many hours of supervision, training, and delivery of EMDR. It’s important to have a therapist with strong knowledge and training, especially given how important it is for you to heal some of the most difficult experiences in your life.
This post is not meant to substitute for treatment with a qualified professional. If you’re looking for an EMDR therapist, I recommend checking the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) website to ensure the therapist is certified (ideally), or minimally, was trained by an approved EMDR training provider.
To find a therapist near you, you can also visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Shapiro, F. (2007). EMDR, adaptive information processing, and case conceptualization. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 1(2), 68-87.
Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. (3rded.). Guilford Press.
Shapiro, F. (1989). Efficacy of the eye movement desensitization procedure in the treatment of traumatic memories. Journal of traumatic stress, 2(2), 199-223.
Schubert, S., & Lee, C. W. (2009). Adult PTSD and its treatment with EMDR: A review of controversies, evidence, and theoretical knowledge. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 3(3), 117-132.
Parnell, L. (2013). Attachment-focused EMDR: Healing Relational Trauma. WW Norton & Company.
Christman, S. D., Garvey, K. J., Propper, R. E., & Phaneuf, K. A. (2003). Bilateral eye movements enhance the retrieval of episodic memories. Neuropsychology, 17, 221–229.